The bear steps in when the eagle flies away
It seems that the plan Vladimir Putin developed as soon as he became Russian president largely relies on redrawing the Middle East’s map through forming highly utilitarian alliances with some of the region’s political bodies who had never expected to form an alliance of any kind, or cooperate at any level, with Russia.
The second element in Putin’s plan is to develop and strengthen Russia’s military power so that it can play roles outside the borders of the Russian Federation. While the United States was focused on its roles in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as handling the Arab-Israeli conflict and influencing the political situation of the region, Russia was restoring its army and reevaluating its military doctrine; Putin’s quest to regain Russia’s prestige in the world and its ability to play an alternative role was obvious, and he succeeded significantly at both. America’s mistakes created enough space for the Russian bear, who has returned to exert his influence over new territories. This influence in the Middle East has reached close US allies: The Arab Gulf states, who began considering the inevitability of taking Russia’s interests and objectives into account, which is something no one expected years ago — not even months ago.
This major transformation was initiated after Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015. Many Western and Arab analysts did not expect this intervention to last long, and deemed it ineffective and harmful for the Russian army. However, through this intervention, Russia achieved many of its key objectives: Unlike the US, it proved its sincerity in supporting its allies, as seen by several regional powers and countries. Russia’s influence has forced major US allies such as Turkey and Israel to seek Russia’s help and coordinate with it to achieve its goals in Syria. Let us not forget Putin’s alliance with Iran, which has troubled many countries in the region.
Egypt has been the primary focus of American-Russian competition, both seeking to extend their influence over the last 25 years, and since the Camp David Accords were signed, Egypt has become one of the most important US allies in the region.
The chaos across Egypt after the events of January 2011 opened a new door for Russia at a time when the US withdrew its support for Egypt and failed to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. The US also paused its military aid after the fall of the Brotherhood in 2013, which created a negative climate and prepared public opinion to accept the change in the Egyptian state’s direction. In 2014, Egypt signed an arms deal with Russia, the first since the Cold War. More arms deals followed. The convergent views that Egypt and Russia share on the Syrian issue are shocking. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi openly declared that the stability of Syria lay in supporting Bashar Assad because he is a strong man. Besides, both Egypt and Russia support Khalifa Haftar’s role in Libya.
What is also worth noting is the great contradiction between the current situation and the situation that prevailed two years ago when Russia’s role in the region was marginal compared with the major US intervention, and this is worth being monitored and tracked.
US disengagement in the region has provided an opportunity for Russia, and Vladimir Putin has taken it — most noticeably in Egypt.
The region’s leaders began streaming into the Kremlin after their American ally let them down, A US mistake that forced its allies to turn to Moscow. Until recently, all these leaders were searching for solutions to their problems in Washington, but the US influence in the Middle East has become quite feeble, while Russia has made significant progress.
During the Cold War, Moscow had great influence in the Middle East because it armed Arab countries against Israel. However, this influence disappeared with the fall of communism, and when the US invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Russia was nothing more than an outside observer that could only protest. In 2013, things started to change when America, led by Barack Obama, decided not to attack Bashar Assad. Two years later, Putin sent his aircraft and troops to turn the game in Syria upside down.
Putin managed to direct Russia’s policy toward playing a balanced role in the Middle East. He wanted to look as if he were being neutral toward the conflicts between region’s countries and powers.
Russia started to strengthen its status in the Middle East when the US leaders turned their attention to Asia, and despite the fact that Washington is still an essential power in the Middle East, its traditional alliances have faded, which forces regional leaders today to seek alternatives.
• Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy
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